Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Deanna Thompson is utilizing more than $300,000 in New York state funding as part of the state stem cell research program, NYSTEM, to study adult neural stem cells. The NYSTEM program is New York's $600 million publicly funded grant program to advance scientific discovery in the area of stem cells.
Working at the interface of engineering and neuroscience, her research is helping scientists and doctors develop new stem cell therapies and research tools utilizing these important cells. The adult stems cells she is investigating could play an important role in understanding and treating a variety of brain illnesses, from cancer and Alzheimer's to traumatic brain injury and stroke.
"Dr. Thompson is a young, rising star in her field and has come up with a highly innovative approach to direct, cause, and control nerve regeneration through stem cell bioengineering," said Rensselaer Biomedical Engineering leader Deepak Vashishth. "The results of her NYSTEM-funded research will provide unique insight into the stem cell niche and help develop new tools and therapies for regenerative medicine."
Neural stem cells are a specialized type of stem cell that can be found in the adult nervous system. These stem cells have the potential to repair or replace damaged nerve cells. For researchers, the ability to generate new cells or repair damaged nerve cells would be exceptionally helpful to heal a traumatic brain injury following an accident or reverse the cellular death caused by an illness like Parkinson's disease. Thompson's research is working to understand exactly how neural stem cells proliferate or differentiate into new nerve cells in the brain so that ability can be replicated to develop new medical treatments.
In order to control stem cell fate or differentiation, she must first understand the complex environment surrounding the stem cells. This environment or "niche" contains vascular and other cells, proteins, carbohydrates, and other cell products. In this niche, stem cells multiply in an orderly manner and can differentiate into new nerve cells or other non-nerve cells in the brain known as glia. Without the key control elements of the niche, a stem cell might multiply quickly, turning from a promising cure to a cancerous tumor. Without a clear understanding of the stem cell niche, a medical treatment involving stem cells could be very risky.
An element of the stem cell niche that Thompson is studying with this round of NYSTEM funding is endothelial cells. These cells line the interior of blood vessels, which are highly concentrated in the regions of the brain where neural stem cells reside. In particular, Thompson is looking at how materials produced by endothelial cells during their development influence neural stem cells' fate. According to Thompson, such control could allow for the development of stem cell therapies grown from an individual patient's own neural stem cells.
To perform her research, Thompson will utilize the resources of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) at Rensselaer.
"Deanna's work, which is at the interface of cell biology and materials science, epitomizes the interdisciplinary research within CBIS," said CBIS Director and the Howard P. Isermann '42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Jonathan Dordick. "By studying the physiology and function of adult stem cells in a synthetic niche, Deanna has identified key determinants of neuronal cell growth and differentiation. Her work has impacted the burgeoning field of regenerative medicine and has helped CBIS make a name for itself in this critical research area."
Her work with brain cells has several other important implications beyond stem cell therapies. Another facet of her research as a member of National Science Foundation-funded Rensselaer Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures involves the use of nanotechnology to repair damaged nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
"Professor Thompson's work in the Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures has addressed both the use of nanotubes in directing neuron growth and investigated the toxicity of carbon nanotubes in potential new medical therapies," said Linda Schadler, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "The ability to direct neuron growth is exciting in terms of helping patients repair damaged nerves. Through her work, she was also one of the first to recognize the role of glial cells in neuron growth, which may be the key to bringing this exciting technology to fruition."